Lower Topanga businesses get the boot

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Malibu Feed Bin, Oasis, Ginger Snips and the Money House must go. Parks officials say recent portrayal of rangers as ‘bullies’ is unfair.

By Stephanie Mojica/Special to The Malibu Times

Continuing its quest to turn Lower Topanga into a state park, the California State Parks Department recently notified several longstanding businesses that they are “not compatible” for plans in the area.

The owners of the Malibu Feed Bin, Oasis, Ginger Snips and the Money House recently received letters from State Parks stating their businesses were not suitable for the plans and must vacate. The Feed Bin has been at the corner of Topanga Canyon and Pacific Coast Highway for 35 years. A deadline date to vacate has not yet been determined.

Topanga Ranch Market, Topanga Ranch Motel, Thai Cholada, Something’s Fishy, Wylie’s Bait Shop and Reel Inn are compatible, said Roy Stearns, State Parks deputy director of communications. However, the owner of Topanga Ranch Market has already taken settlement monies and closed shop.

These evictions follow the displacement of many of the longtime residents of the once tranquil community, which has escalated into accusations by remaining residents that State Parks rangers are using heavy-handed tactics to get them out. State Parks officials deny the accusations.

Discord between the Lower Topanga community and officials started about two years ago, when State Parks bought the 1,659 acres of land from the Los Angeles Athletic Club Organization (LAACO), and announced plans to eventually raze much of the homes and businesses for a state park.

The conflict escalated last summer when about 74 residents received eviction notices from the state. All but 20 of them took compensation packages and left. Those remaining are in litigation regarding the legality of the evictions as well as fairness of compensation.

The businesses that were sent letters of non-compatibility are good for the present community, but not able to provide park visitors needed food, purchases and educational experiences, Stearns said.

“It’s not our mission to make anyone feel bad,” Stearns said. “But we need to stay true to what a state park is, and there are certain needs our visitors must have met.”

Topanga Ranch Motel owner Ray Craig is uncertain whether it will be profitable to continue operating the motel. Owner of motel for 18 years, Craig said he has not made a final decision just yet. He doesn’t know how much compensation he might receive. “I’m not upset with anybody, though it is the end of a fine era,” Craig said. “I need to know all the options before I sign anything.”

Stearns at first said the Topanga Ranch Market was still considering whether to take settlement funds and vacate. However, the market has been closed for some time, and in a follow-up interview, Stearns confirmed the owner had received funds and closed the market.

Oasis owner David Haid, and Marty Morehart, owner of Malibu Feed Bin for about 35 years, don’t plan to leave without a fight. “They said my business was no enhancement to the area, and didn’t give services needed for the park,” Haid said. “That is the antithesis of who I am. This shows that they didn’t think it through.”

Morehart and Haid said they will be unable to relocate and placed out of business.

Haid plans to take his case to Gov. Gray Davis, and already has customers writing letters of support. Both businesses pay about $500,000 in taxes a year.

State Parks has not yet decided what to do with the land the businesses occupy. There also must be public hearings before any definite decisions are made, Stearns said. Possible uses for the land could include franchises, parking, nature trails, restored lagoons and a visitor’s center.

Chris Murray, an actor and father of two girls, is a longtime Oasis customer. “I can just see state parks putting a Starbucks where the Feed Bin [is],” Murray said. “It ought to be illegal what they’re doing.”

‘We’re not bullies’

Stearns said he understands why people are upset about leaving their homes, but that it is for the greater good of California.

“We want to restore the land and make a beautiful place that millions of people can enjoy,” Stearns said. “We’re not bullies.”

Stearns said some of the residents have not complied with the law, doing everything from using empty houses as lodging for visitors to storing property in yards and homes that were set for demolition. Letter citations recently went out to four residents, Stearns said.

Murray used to leave his house and cars unlocked. Now, he says, State Park rangers wander into houses uninvited and intimidate people while wearing guns. State Parks disagrees, and believes community media coverage of recent alleged incidents concerning gun display was unfair.

Stearns said of 3,000 employees, 500 are rangers and carry guns whenever on duty. He said on a few occasions, personnel in regular clothes and a couple of uniformed rangers simply took a tour of the grounds.

“I would be shocked if one of our rangers entered a home without permission or strutted around with their guns,” Stearns said. “They don’t carry guns because of normal citizens, but the criminal element in society. I can’t have them going around unarmed just because they’re in Lower Topanga.”

Ted Jackson, Southern Division chief of State Parks, said no one has formally complained about the alleged home invasions, or general abuse of power. “When I’ve been out there, I’ve seen citizens and our staff waving at each other,” Jackson said. “If people are so intimidated, why aren’t they going through our official grievance process?”

Nineteen vacant homes are scheduled for demolition by the end of May, and 12 more structures will be razed once permits are issued. A judge dismissed a collective claim from the remaining residents, citing that State Parks acted properly in the evictions. Individual cases are still pending.